Rangers report card: New iron curtain and reinforced forward line paying off - but there is room for improvement
When the 2019-20 season came to a premature halt in March, Rangers were very much in the midst of a malaise.
With their title challenge to Celtic having fizzled out after the winter break, Steven Gerrard’s side were struggling to get out of second gear.
In their final five matches before Covid-19 sent football into hibernation, Rangers managed just one victory - a laboured 1-0 win at Ross County on 8 March.
When they faced the Dingwall side again at Ibrox last Sunday, Gerrard’s men were again far from at the top of their game. But as they signed off the first quarter of the 2020-21 campaign with a 2-0 victory, this looks a very different Rangers outfit to the one which faded away with such a whimper seven months earlier.
Since returning from lockdown, Rangers have been reinvigorated. Unbeaten in their first 10 Premiership fixtures, they have also extended Gerrard’s remarkable record in Europa League qualifying matches by winning their three single-leg ties against Lincoln Red Imps, Willem II and Galatasaray to reach the group stage of the tournament for a third consecutive year under the former Liverpool and England captain.
It soon became clear that Gerrard had successfully reset and refocused his squad during the enforced break.
A trip to Lyon for the Veolia Cup tournament looked like a daunting initial pre-season assignment but Rangers hit the ground running with two assured and mature performances as they beat both the host club and Nice 2-0 to lift a morale-boosting piece of minor silverware.
Convincing 4-0 and 2-0 wins over Motherwell and Coventry City at Ibrox maintained a pre-season pattern of impressive possession-based football and clean sheets which Rangers would carry into the competitive action.
So, after the first quarter of the season, how does Rangers’ report card read as they prepare to return from the current international break and put their place at the top of the Premiership table on the line against champions Celtic at Parkhead next weekend?
The New Iron Curtain
Memories of Rangers’ most famous defence, the ‘Iron Curtain’ rearguard of legendary captain George Young & Co from the late 1940s and early 1950s, were evoked by the resolute start to the season of Gerrard’s team.
Unaffected by an injury sustained by goalkeeper Allan McGregor in the opening day 1-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie, his replacement Jon McLaughlin - a summer signing from Sunderland - helped put together a record-breaking sequence of seven successive shut-outs at the start of the Scottish top flight campaign.
Not only was it Rangers’ best such run since the Iron Curtain defence kept four clean sheets in 1949-50, it also eclipsed the club record of five clean sheets at the start of the 1929-30 season and the all-time Scottish best of six set by Willie Maley’s Celtic side in 1906.
Connor Goldson, partnered by either Leon Balogun or Filip Helander at the heart of Gerrard’s back four, has been especially influential in providing the solid platform which has allowed the rest of the team to express themselves more creatively.
Striking the right balance in midfield has perhaps been the key to Rangers finding such momentum and consistency so far this season.
Whether by choice or because of injuries, Gerrard has rotated the central trio in his favoured 4-3-3 formation. Regardless of the personnel, however, there has generally been little disruption to the overall effectiveness of that unit.
Ryan Jack, Steven Davis and Glen Kamara have all offered composure in possession and an extra layer of security in front of the back four. The form of Kamara has prompted Gerrard to urge the Ibrox board to tie the Finnish international down on a new contract.
Joe Aribo, whose anticipated return from injury after the international break will provide a major boost, provides both athleticism and creativity. But Scott Arfield, with three goals and three assists since stepping in for Aribo, will not be easily shifted from the starting line-up on current form.
With deadline day signing Bongani Zungu now offering another midfield option, it’s a department where Gerrard is now spoiled for choice.
Variety in attack
Last season saw Rangers too heavily reliant on Alfredo Morelos for goals. When they dried up for the Colombian international after the winter break, no-one was able to adequately fill the void.
Gerrard has looked to rectify that with significant investment in the signings of former Leeds forward Kemar Roofe from Anderlecht and Swiss international Cedric Itten from St Gallen.
Morelos remains the first choice number nine after transfer window interest in him was rebuffed, while veteran former England striker Jermain Defoe continues to offer another valuable alternative.
Ianis Hagi and Ryan Kent have provided sustained levels of width and creativity in Gerrard’s front three.
At times, however, Rangers have lacked the cutting edge required to maximise the efficiency of their slick and often imaginative passing game - most notably in the 0-0 draw at Livingston, while they also passed up clear-cut chances which might have seen them avoid shipping the only other two points they have dropped in a 2-2 draw against Hibs at Easter Road.
So while Gerrard has plenty of reasons to feel satisfied by his team’s progress so far this season, he recognises there remains both room and a requirement for improvement in the ruthlessness and relentlessness of their performances if they are to meet the demands placed upon him to end Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football.
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